The big question looming over US-Iraqi negotiations on a US military presence after 2011 is what game Shi'a leader Moqtada al-Sadr is playing on the issue.
US officials regard Sadr as still resisting the US military presence illegally and are demanding that Sadr call off his Promised Day Brigades completely.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's main point of contact with Sadr says Sadr is playing a double game and does not intend to obstruct the negotiations on a deal for the stationing of 10,000 or more US troops from 2012 onward.
Sadr made a crucial move over the weekend toward accepting such an agreement between the Barack Obama administration and the Maliki government, according to a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the International Liaison Office (ILO). The ILO is an arm of Iraqi military intelligence that is run by a former East German intelligence official who was Sadr's political adviser during the height of the US war against the Sadrists in 2007-08.
Sadr agreed in an unpublicised direct exchange of views with Maliki that he would not exploit a request by Maliki to President Obama to station US troops in Iraq beyond this year by attacking Maliki politically or threatening his government, the senior Iraqi intelligence official told IPS.
The popular Shi'a leader has maintained a longstanding threat to withdraw support from the government over the US military presence. But when questioned directly by Maliki about his intentions, Sadr agreed that there would be no repeat of his 2006 withdrawal of Sadrist ministers from Maliki's first government over that issue, according to an account of the exchange provided by the Iraqi intelligence official.
"Maliki called Sadr's bluff," he said.
Sadr's ambiguous position on the US troop presence is understood by the ILO to be keyed to his role as kingmaker in Maliki's government, as well as his need to maintain the support of the poor and dispossessed Shi'a who represent his political power base.
"He has to placate two different constituencies," the official told IPS. That means taking a hard line on the US troop presence in Arabic language public statements meant for his Shi'a constituency, but taking an accommodating line in private contacts with Maliki.
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Sadr had displayed an uncompromising posture toward the US military presence in recent weeks. The Promised Day Brigade, which Sadr created in 2008 to fight against US forces, had attacked US bases and troop convoys in June.
The Brigade had issued a statement June 28 claiming responsibility for 10 mortar and Katyusha rocket attacks against US bases around the country and attacks on US military convoys, saying that the attacks had "killed and wounded a number of US soldiers".
Attacks by Shi'a militias killed 15 US troops in June – the highest monthly total of troops killed in combat since June 2008.
US officials in Baghdad included the Promised Day Brigade among the three Shi'a militias they said had been funded and armed by Iran and had killed US troops.
Last weekend, in a statement posted on his website, Sadr said nothing to disassociate himself from the Promised Day Brigade's operations against US forces or its claim of responsibility for killing US troops. Instead, he announced the Brigade would have the "mission" of "resisting" US troops if they are not all gone by December 31 – the deadline for withdrawal under the agreement signed by George W. Bush in November 2008.
But the ILO has been telling officials at the White House and the Pentagon that, in order to avoid antagonising Washington, Sadr had ordered the Brigade to limit its attacks to "hard targets" - installations and armoured vehicles - to minimise the likelihood of US casualties, according to the senior Iraqi intelligence official.
The ILO has dismissed the statement by the Brigade claiming to have killed and wounded US troops as coming from a hard-line faction within the Sadrist movement close to Iran that was hoping to force Sadr's hand on the negotiations on a US troop presence.
The ILO official points to Sadr's actions over the weekend as evidence that he has made significant accommodations to allow the negotiations to go forward.
The Sadr statement, posted on the same weekend as his exchange with Maliki, said the Promised Day Brigade would be given the mission of resisting US occupation if and when the US troops were not withdrawn.
A Sadrist legislator, Mushriq Naji, made the same point in an interview with Aswat Al Iraq newspaper July 11. "The Promised Day Brigade is carrying out the missions of resistance now and in the future," he said, "in the event of non-withdrawal of the Americans."
That message appeared to contradict the June 28 Brigade statement, which said that the attacks would continue.
Sadr's statement also withdrew the threat he had made in April to "restart the activities of the Mahdi Army" if the US didn't withdraw by the end of the year. The reactivation of the Mahdi Army had been regarded as part of an implicit threat to bring down the government over the issue of US troops.
But US officials aren't buying the idea that Sadr is playing a double game. Asked if anyone involved in Iraq policy believed Sadr had signaled that he would tacitly allow the negotiations to go ahead, one official said, "I don't think so."
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, official spokesman for United States forces-Iraq, vehemently denied in response to an e-mail query from IPS that Sadr was restraining the Promised Day Brigade in relation to US forces.
"Last month, PDB [Promised Day Brigades] claimed responsibility for 52 attacks against US forces," Buchanan said, adding that claims that the Brigade had not caused any casualties to US forces and that Sadr would not obstruct negotiations on an agreement "carry no credibility in our eyes whatsoever"
Civilian officials working on Iraq take a more nuanced view of Sadr, but are not yet convinced that he will acquiesce to a US presence beyond 2011. "It's still unclear what Sadr is doing," said one US official who follows the issue closely. "He doesn't seem to have stable preferences on this issue."
The official added that he is "99 percent sure" that the Promised Day Brigade has caused some casualties among US troops. He concedes, however, that most of those casualties have come from two much smaller Shi'a militia groups, neither of which is regarded as responsive to Sadr's direct command.
The US demand that Sadr give up the Promised Day Brigades entirely is one that he probably could not meet without risking the loss of his Shi'a political base. If an agreement were reached in time on stationing US troops beyond this year, Sadr would have to go through at least the motions of attacking US military installations, according to the ILO official.
If tensions between the US military and Sadr continue to rise, Sadr may reverse course and drop the covert inside game he is said to have adopted. Ironically, the US inability or unwillingness to play along with a Sadr double game on a US troop presence could help Iran stymie the US effort to preserve a rapidly dwindling influence in Iraq.